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Optimism, Months Ago

Despite current bad news for Jews, reasons for hope.

Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin’s, $24.95) by Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff appeared a few months ago, when the world looked rosier. In those halcyon days, pre-Madoff, pre-market meltdown, philanthropist Bronfman, and Zasloff, an alumna of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, set forth the areas of Jewish life where our energies should go, where funding should be directed, and where worrying should stop. Think positive!

Much of the energy in this book is the presence — and the personal narrative — of Bronfman himself, turning 80 this year. In the many roles he has played as a funder and an organizer of Jewish institutions, Hillel among them, Bronfman has learned about Jewish issues and Judaism from women and men of all backgrounds. He seems perpetually curious, a devotee of lifelong learning, and wants Jewish life to reflect the richness of both the tradition and its newer cultural manifestations. He disapproves of those who would fence Jews off, and believes Jewish life needs to be more inviting and enticing, both for outreach and “inreach.”

Bronfman pitches for a Jewish renaissance, but in truth this “rebirth” has been going on for a few decades already. The “new ideas, new conditions, and new models” he calls for and praises have already shaped the trajectories of many of the people who appear here: One of the pleasures of this book is hearing the voices of the many women who have shaped Bronfman’s thinking. Rabbi Janet Marder blesses a non-Jewish spouse, Tova Hartman wants to take traditional women’s roles “to center stage of a shul’s life,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum reflects that when her synagogue, New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the largest gay and lesbian congregation, was founded in 1973, “you had to look straight even if you weren’t straight.”

Bronfman (for it is clearly his voice propelling the book) zooms in close at the end, to focus on what happens right under our own roofs, not just in schools and synagogues and summer camps, and delivers a charge that parents recognize home as “the mooring” for Jewish identity and experience.